Marin Cilic stared across the net, shook his back leg nervously, and bounced the ball five times. “Bounced,” actually, is too tame a word; the big man pounded it into the red dirt at his feet again and again.
What was the meaning behind Cilic’s piercing glare, and his merciless ball bouncing? Was he filled with determination, or fear? Was he thinking about how well he had played so far this weekend, in winning five straight sets over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Lucas Pouille, and bringing Croatia to the brink of its second Davis Cup?
Or was Cilic thinking about the last time he had been in this position? In the 2016 final, at home in Zagreb, he had led Juan Martin del Potro two sets to love in the fourth rubber, and was just a few games from clinching the title for his country. But that day, in the span of a few hours, Cilic had gone from hero to zero, as del Potro, and Argentina, stormed back to win.
Now Cilic and Croatia were two games from the Cup again. He was serving at 4-3, 30-15, but he had just double faulted. Over the first two sets, Cilic had been solid, and Pouille had been awful, but the Croat had shown a few nerves and had a few hiccups along the way. If he was going to collapse again, this would probably be the moment.
Instead, after a few more court-length glares, and a half-a-dozen more ball bounces, Cilic rocked back into his herky-jerky service motion and threw down an unreturnable serve. The score was 40-15, and the tension had passed. He would go on to close out Pouille, 7-6 (3), 6-3, 6-3, and clinch Croatia’s second Davis Cup. This competition loves a redemption story, so it was only fitting that in the final year of the Cup’s old, four-round, home-and-away format, Cilic gave it one.
Davis Cup also loves a small-country-plays-big story, and it got one of those from Croatia, whose population of four million is less than half of New York City’s. Many of Cilic’s countrymen who traveled to Lille, France, wore red-and-white-checked water polo caps as they cheered him on. Croatia’s men’s water polo team, like its tennis team, has always punched above its population size. It won Olympic gold in London in 2012 and silver in Rio in 2016. Now the same small country has knocked off France, the defending Davis Cup winners, and one of the sport’s longtime powerhouses.
“It’s not every day that you become a world champion,” Cilic said afterward, as champagne sprayed across the clay. “For us, it’s a dream.”
It was a dream weekend all around for the Croats. Cilic and his teammate, Borna Coric, played nine sets and won them all. In the first rubber on Friday, France’s Jeremy Chardy was broken by Coric in an 11-minute opening game, and never recovered. Chardy’s slump-shouldered, head-hanging demeanor set an ominously negative tone for the home team.
It was a tone that Tsonga and Pouille quickly picked up on. In 2017, on the same court, they had each won a singles match in France’s winning final-round effort against Belgium. This year they offered only token resistance against Cilic. If there was a difference-maker in this final, it came from the backhand side. Chardy and Tsonga couldn’t muster any pace from that wing on Friday. If anything, Pouille’s backhand was even worse on Sunday. He began the day with a flurry of unforced backhand errors, and ended it by sending two backhands into the bottom of the net to start the final game. After Chardy’s lackluster performance on Friday, many wondered why Noah had chosen him over Pouille. On Sunday, Pouille showed us why.
In my preview of this tie, I wrote that it would be a bittersweet weekend for tennis fans, as they watched the last old-style Davis Cup final; after 118 years, there will be an entirely new, shorter, and faster format in 2019. I also wrote that this tie would likely give us all of the drama that Davis Cup finals are famous for; unfortunately, Croatia vs. France didn’t do that. Three of the four matches were blowouts, the home fans had little to “Allez!” about, and no unsung heroes rose to the occasion, as they so often have in Cup finals in the past. I’ll miss this version of Davis Cup, but rather them making me regret its passing, this weekend has made me curious about what comes next.
If the last old-school final wasn’t a classic, it did deliver in the two ways that I mentioned above. It gave a smaller country a chance to rule a world sport, the way Serbia did in 2010, the Czech Republic did in 2012 and 2013, and Switzerland did in 2014. And it gave a great player who has labored for years in the shadows of the Big 4 a chance to own that same world stage. In the last decade, Andy Roddick, Tomas Berdych, del Potro and Tsonga have all had take their star turns; today it was Cilic’s.
To say a player is “one of the good guys” is a cliché, but it also happens to be true in Cilic’s case. He’s one of the nicest people in tennis, and it has been tough to watch him squander leads in big matches over the years. After he won on Sunday, Cilic’s glowering face turned joyful, but before he did anything else, he made sure to shake hands with the French players; they looked genuinely happy for him. Cilic’s redemption story is a Davis Cup tradition, and so is the sportsmanship that was shown by both sides in those handshakes. If nothing else is the same in the new format, let’s hope those two customs remain.